Composed 2001 by Jeffrey Bernstein (ASCAP). Commissioned by Leandra Strope and the Governor's School of North Carolina - West. This recording is from the premiere there in 2001, conducted by Jeffrey Bernstein. Copyright © 2001 Corduroy Fifths Music Publishing.
“Chomolungma” means “goddess mother of the world” and is the Tibetan name for the world’s tallest mountain, the peak Westerners call Mount Everest. Since its discovery and verification Chomolungma has inspired thousands of men and women to scale its slopes attempting to reach the summit. The mountain stands at 8450 meters (29,035 feet) and this height just happens to be very near the absolute limit for human survival at altitude. While climbing the mountain requires great physical strength, stamina and mountaineering prowess, the greatest danger climbers encounter is hypoxia. Above 8000 meters the atmosphere is too thin to sustain life, and climbers entering the so-called “death zone,” even those carrying supplemental oxygen to breathe, live on borrowed time. The effects of oxygen starvation on the brain include a loss of mental acuity and an increase in lethargy. Climbers describe feeling unable to think clearly and yet feeling no anxiety about the loss of their powers of reason; though frequently their lives are in jeopardy, the danger makes no impression upon them. This altered consciousness presents an interesting counterpoint to the raw ambition that typically characterizes the Everest “peak-bagger.”
While the mountain has recently gained unprecedented notoriety as a place where dilettantes can purchase the adventure of their lifetimes, climbers like Reinhold Messner have brought honor and artistry to the field of mountaineering. Messner was the first to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen and the first to climb the mountain alone, and he champions the idea that Everest should remain the province of those who devote their lives to training and who harbor an essential respect for the mountain. Messner is a modern-day Lancelot, of unparalleled strength, and the only Western climber with such a finely developed sense of symbiosis with the mountain. Messner climbs not for the glory, but for the experience of focusing intensely upon something outside himself.
The Tibetans revere the mountain as the holiest of holy places, and not until Westerners began the practice of hiring indigenous people as porters on expeditions did any Tibetan scale the mountain. While the act of “taming” such a geographic feature appears hubristic, the humbling experience of journeying so near death changes many of the climbers who return. In my mind the ambition Chomolungma represents is not the ambition to conquer, but the aspiration to free one’s own Buddha-nature. The scale of interaction between one infinitesimal person and this largest of mountains echoes the sense that we all belong to something greater than ourselves. The journey upward represents the journey inward, and the result is a softened heart and a calmer mind.
The piece loosely chronicles a journey up and down Chomolungma. The opening bars recall the sound of Tibetan horns and ceremonial bells, while the first choral section should feel like the ambition, excitement and anticipation that precede the actual journey. The return of the opening music marks the arrival at the mountain, and the choral section that follows is the climb itself: repetitive, a seemingly endless series of steps, and yet not without progress. The octatonic passage at m. 140 is my homage to the famous “second step”, the most dangerous obstacle on the northeast ridge of Chomolungma, a sheer rock cliff, sixty feet high, located at 28,000 feet altitude. The brass fanfare heralds the arrival at the summit, and the piece unwinds slowly from there, the choir descending and depicting a sense of inner calm.